If Silicon Valley welcomes the Prime Minister when he travels there during his visit to the United States, that begins next week, it will be against the advice of the finest academics in America. As faculty who ‘engage South Asia’ in their teaching and research, they have warned against the ‘uncritical fanfare’ that Narendra Modi’s imminent visit has generated. In ominous tones they warn that Modi’s Digital India initiative is almost certainly going to be used by the Prime Minister for spying on his critics. And that Silicon Valley’s technology entrepreneurs could be violating their own codes of corporate responsibility by doing business with a government that has demonstrated its ‘disregard for human rights and civil liberties, as well as the autonomy of educational and cultural institutions’.
What intrigued me when I read the statement that these self-appointed sentinels issued is how, in the lofty realms of American academia, they know so much more about what is happening in India than we do. Where are these abuses of human rights? Where have civil liberties been curtailed? Where are the ‘well-publicised’ episodes of censorship? The violations of religious freedom? The ‘steady impingement’ on the independence of the judiciary? The picture of India that these worthy intellectuals paint is of a country that is not very different to North Korea or the ISIS caliphate, and I find this deeply offensive.
As someone who makes a living out of political commentary, I am appalled by the lack of faith these giants of American academia exhibit in India’s institutions of democracy. Do they seriously believe that it has been possible for Narendra Modi to diminish all of them in one year? And to have done this so sneakily that nobody has noticed?
Nobody except a handful of NGOs whose foreign funding is being questioned by the government. If I were advising the Prime Minister, I would tell him to let them be, because why give them the chance to spew venom against India on our ‘censored’ news channels? But I have no hesitation in saying that most NGOs working in India do very little that is constructive or good. Far too many of our most revered NGO stars make fortunes out of spreading disinformation and poison in our most vulnerable communities. They travel first class to the capitals of the world and from the luxury of five-star hotels hold forth on India’s poverty and environmental degradation at conferences of rich people. Personally this makes me sick.
It is not just the treatment of NGOs that has made Modi into an undesirable alien in the eyes of American academia, it is also his ‘interference’ in Indian universities and academic institutions. Clearly from their ivory tower they have not noticed that this kind of interference has existed since India became an independent nation. The only change that has happened in the past year is that a small, mostly ineffectual attempt has been made to loosen the stranglehold that Leftist academics have had over these institutions.
Unfortunately, the Modi government has made some stupid mistakes in making these changes and the most obvious example comes from the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. Even the Prime Minister’s staunchest supporters admit that to put a B-grade actor in charge of an institution like this is a bad idea. This should not distract us from the vital need to bring real changes in the way our educational and cultural institutions have been run. If the Culture Minister spent less time questioning the patriotism of Muslims and more on doing his job, he may discover how much work needs to be done. And if one day the Prime Minister recognises the importance of bringing back a full-time Education Minister, we might finally get an education policy that gives Indian schoolchildren a syllabus that gives them some sense of what being Indian means. The education system we inherited from the British continues to produce ‘a nation of clerks’.
If you want proof that neo-literate Indians are losing their own languages without really learning English, look at bookshops in our major towns and cities. They sell mostly books in English, and if Indian writers want to gain a measure of celebrity from writing, they have to write in English. This is disgraceful. And if the Modi government can be faulted, it is for not having done enough already to make educational and cultural institutions more Indian and more useful. As they are today, they serve mostly to provide cushy jobs for retired bureaucrats, who often hang on to their luxurious houses in Lutyens Delhi this way. So there is much to be done to rectify damage done over decades and the Modi government has so far not taken one small step towards parivartan. But perhaps these things are not evident from the exalted realms of American academia.